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In Boston, riding with The Man

Special to The Times

Clint EASTWOOD. It’s not a name, it’s an institution. The reaction of people who see him on the street says it all. Gobsmacked. Like they just saw the guy whose face is on the $20 bill. Or is it the 50? And before they can figure it out, he’s gone. Walking at a pace that chews up the sidewalk, leaving bystanders blinking in his wake.

I witnessed this as we scouted South Boston for the film “Mystic River.” Heard snippets of conversations through three-decker screen windows as we strode along. “Hey! Clint Eastwood just walked by the house!” “You’re crazy!” “I’m serious!”

I don’t know how people reacted in the drugstore because he goes in to buy his dental floss alone while we wait in the scout van. The location manager turns to me and asks how long I’ve known Clint. The answer: “As long as I can remember.”

It started with “The Good, the Bad & the Ugly,” broadcast in one crazy adulterated form or another by Channel 56 in Boston in what seemed to be a continuous loop. The first time I saw Clint at a movie theater was when I was 15 or so. “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” The shattered loner gathering up a ragtag extended family as he’s chased across a post-Civil War landscape. It’s still my favorite Eastwood movie bar none. And, in 1985, once I decided to try my hand at movie writing, I came to Hollywood with what I thought was a simple goal: to write one movie that starred Clint Eastwood.

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It would be 17 years before that movie would come out. In 1997 Clint saw “L.A. Confidential” and I got the call I always wanted to get -- someone from Warner’s telling me Eastwood was interested in having me adapt “Blood Work.” In 2002 the film was released. My goal was realized. I was happy just like I thought I would be. But once gets you thinking about twice. Luckily, the second time around with Clint took only 2 1/2 months.

We’ve all heard stories of long development processes, studios scouring the Earth for material, the dearth of anything worth making. Clint read a review of the book “Mystic River” in a magazine, called the author, Dennis Lehane, and bought the rights. Clean and simple.

He spoke to me about the book and I read it. Its ambitions were big and Lehane had pulled them off quite well. To bring it to the screen was a risky proposition. There were more ways to go wrong than right. And the thought that Clint Eastwood, a man who had nothing to prove, was going to step into the breach was overwhelming to me.

So after a draft, I found myself location scouting in Boston. Graciously asked to tag along in a city where Channel 56 was probably still rerunning those movies. Scouting with an icon. Ducking under clotheslines, cutting through backyards and inspecting local living rooms with a disarming modesty that left the residents feeling blessed.

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Porch after porch was rejected until Clint saw the one he wanted. Just wide enough to shoot comfortably, just narrow enough to feel intimate when Celeste Boyle betrays her husband to Jimmy Markham.

That night I get a call. The Voice. “You hungry?” Ten minutes later I’m down in the lobby. Where are we going to eat? As always there are no shortcuts, no army of assistants trying to determine a good restaurant. Why should there be when Clint very rightly knows that’s what bartenders are for. And which bar? The first one we come to. Out the door, take a left and walk till we hit one.

Inside for a beer and an inquiry to the bartender for good Italian. Nothing flashy, the real stuff. We get an address. While sipping his beer, Clint drops a few thoughts that will form the spine of my rewrite. Insightful and to the point, I don’t need to write them down. Good notes are like that.

Outside, Clint hails the taxi. A middle-aged cabbie picks us up. Now the pope himself might as well have gotten into this guy’s taxi, but he doesn’t bat an eye. Just asks us where we are going. Clint tells him and we roll. The cabbie doesn’t say another word. Neither do I. Neither does Clint. He’s as comfortable with long silences as anyone I’ve ever met.

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Finally about 10 minutes into the drive, way out of left field the cabbie turns and says, “In ‘Play Misty For Me,’ I’ve always wondered

I secretly hope at that moment that in 20 years somewhere a cab driver will be asking me to clear up a character point in “Mystic River.” It seems fitting that as we are preparing the 24th film Clint’s directed, he’s being asked a question about his first.

Location scouting has blessed me with memorable experiences over the years. In a helicopter I was nearly buffeted by wind into New York’s 59th Street Bridge. In Prague I was deep in the city’s unlit sewer system when the car battery running our scout light ran out of juice. In Naples I had a run-in with a pickpocket that very nearly redefined the term “physical comedy.”

But Boston is the best. I’m riding with the King. Clint Eastwood.

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“Mystic River” received six Oscar nominations, including best adapted screenplay (Brian Helgeland) and best director (Clint Eastwood).


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